Credit: High Desert ATV Rides
Credit: High Desert ATV Rides

Tour the Terrain: Off-roading in Arizona

Ditch the main lane for some off-road adventures on Jeeps, ATVs and more.

Heading out on an off-road adventure in Arizona is a great way to explore the thousands of miles of trails, roads and open areas the state offers for off-highway vehicles (OHVs), motorbikes and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs).

You can spend the afternoon crawling over the red rocks of Sedona or creeping down a steep rocky trail to a desert canyon waterfall. Or maybe you'd rather ride the volcanic cinder fields where NASA astronauts once trained and travel back in time to old abandoned mining towns. You can do it all; and thanks to our climate, you can enjoy these outdoor adventures year-round.

Note: Resident and non-resident off-highway vehicles (OHVs) MUST display a valid OHV decal to operate on public and state trust lands in Arizona. Learn more and purchase an OHV decal.

Drive the dunes

For the ultimate off-road thrill, roller coaster through Arizona's sand dunes. Near Yuma and Arizona's Western border are two popular areas perfect for kicking up some dust.

Tackle the Ehrenberg Sandbowl—a 2,000-acre site between Yuma and Lake Havasu City along the Colorado River. Popular with dune buggies and ATVs, the trails in this OHV area are open to most types of vehicles. About two hours south, live your Star Wars dreams as you ride the nearby massive Imperial Sand Dunes. It's here that the movie series filmed scenes from "Episode V: Return of the Jedi," and it remains an otherworldly experience.

Both the Ehrenberg Sandbowl and Imperial Dunes require permits, which can be bought at several Yuma-area gas stations and OHV businesses, at the BLM Yuma Field Office located at 7341 E. 30th Street in Yuma, or online at fareharbor.com/isdpermits (Imperial Sand Dunes only).

On the other side of the state is Safford's Hot Well Dunes Recreation Area. This spot has an added, and somewhat unusual amenity: After riding the dunes, enjoy a cleansing soak in the on-site hot tubs.

Rides with bonus activities and sights

Get more out of your ride with trails that offer more than scenery.

Enjoy a side of Arizona history in the western part of Arizona as you travel along old mining routes at Hualapai Mountain Park near Kingman. Or visit the remains of the abandoned Swansea mining town east of Parker. You won't see much of the areas' glory days of mining save for a few brick buildings, the railroad grade, and the mine shafts. But for fans of the Old West or abandoned buildings, they're a fun side trip.

For those who like to mix it up and combine multiple outdoor activities, Bulldog Canyon OHV Area (near Apache Junction, east of Phoenix) has options for water sports at nearby Saguaro Lake and backcountry hiking.

Bulldog Canyon is the southernmost point and the start of Arizona's portion of the Great Western Trail—a 4,455-mile, backcountry route from Mexico to Canada that runs through Montana, Idaho and Utah. Arizona has developed some 300 miles through the wooded Tonto and Kaibab national forests, leaving riders at the Utah border east of Fredonia.

Go along for the ride and let others drive

For less-experienced riders, or riders traveling without their equipment, outfits like Stellar Adventures and Desert Dog Offroad Adventures in Phoenix and Arizona ATV Adventures in Sedona, Phoenix and Tucson provide riders with an ATV and a guide for exploring.

The guided tour options traverse the state.

  • Navigate the trails and historic sites in Box Canyon near Florence. Bump through creeks and washes in the rugged Tonto National Forest.
  • Start in the lush Verde Valley and ride 800 miles above its floor for an expansive view atop Skeleton Bone Mountain.
  • Or get a sense of the historic Wild West and desert beauty among the Bradshaw Mountains north of Phoenix.

Other tours feature nature and history programs along the rim and bottom of the magnificent Grand Canyon; among the mighty saguaro cactus of the Sonoran Desert; past the Indian ruins of Canyon de Chelly; and into less-accessible areas of Monument Valley's otherworldly formations.

Popular trails

Broken Arrow Trail - Sedona

One of Arizona's most popular 4x4 trails runs over steep and narrow red rocks. Highlights include the Devil's Staircase, a steep downhill section of stair-stepped red rocks. The best time to experience this trail is when the sun is low, creating dramatic lighting as you take in the panoramic views of Bell Rock, Chapel Butte or the Rock of Gibraltar. The drive is less than four miles and takes about two to three hours.

Access: Turn west off Arizona Highway 179 onto Morgan Road. As it passes through Broken Arrow Estates, it becomes FR 179F.

Box Canyon Trail - Wickenburg

Racing your ATV down a running streambed is a great way to stay cool in those hot summer months. The trail follows the Hassayampa riverbed through a narrow box canyon lined with saguaro cacti. You can get as wet and muddy as you want, but you might want to keep your phone in a waterproof case

Access: From Wickenburg, drive north on U.S. Highway 93, turn right on South Rincon Road and continue north. Where the riverbed crosses the road a second time, the trail begins.

Maverick Trail - Show Low, White Mountains (50-inch width limitation)

When summer temperatures begin to climb, take a cool motorcycle ride through the ponderosa pines on the Maverick Trail. At an elevation above 6,000 feet, this 50-mile trail offers stunning views of the White Mountains and connects the town of Clay Springs to Pinetop. Made for motorcycle, ATV and OHV use, it's narrow—with a 50-inch width limitation—but plans to widen and extend the trail are in the works

Access: Maverick Trail has five access points. Find detailed maps online at azstateparks.com/ohv.

Chiva Falls Trails - Redington Pass, Tucson

It may be difficult to get there, but this ride ends at a stunning 75-foot-tall waterfall located on the north side of the Rincon Mountain Wilderness Area. With a high-clearance 4x4 or OHV, you can traverse rolling hills with steep, rocky ascents and descents through normally dry streambeds. To reach the falls, you will need to clear the first technical challenge, a slab rock area called Three Feathers. Once you reach your destination, cool off with a dip at the base of the falls, which flow July through September

Access: Drive to the end of Tanque Verde Road. After the dry wash, the road becomes AZ Highway 371/Redington Road. Head up the road five miles, taking a right turn onto #4417, where a cattle guard marks the entrance to the trail.

Cinder Hills OHV Recreational Area - Flagstaff

What would it be like to ride on the moon? In the 1960s, NASA scientists asked the same question. In response, NASA bombed craters into Cinder Lake, a basaltic cinder field—now a small section of this very popular 13,500-acre OHV area in northern Arizona. Apollo 15 astronauts learned how to drive the Lunar Roving Vehicle in the same location you can ride today. One Hundred Dollar Hill is the most challenging route to the top of these barren, black and storied hills.

Access: Junction of U.S. Highway 89 and FR 776, 12 miles north of downtown Flagstaff.

MAKE A PLAN

You can start planning your next off-road adventure by researching new trails online. Check the following websites for information on the state's trails, off-road regulations and licensing requirements:

Remember to bring: plenty of food and water and off-road rescue gear, including

  • a Hi-Lift Jack, folding shovel
  • tow strap
  • jumper cables and
  • tools for roadside repairs.

Arizona weather can turn extreme with little notice, so take a look at the forecast before starting out. Plan your adventure, be prepared and get ready to have some fun.

About the Author

Arizona Office of Tourism

These articles are brought to you by the staff of the Arizona Office of Tourism, and occasionally local tourism organizations around the state.